CONVERSATIONS, FILMMAKING

“We owe it to ourselves to go out and do it!” – NFTS graduate Shady El-Hamus talks film directing

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Do you want to know a lot about directing films? Then chat with Shady El-Hamus, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the National Film & Television School (NFTS), or modestly read on and decrypt the messages below.

Shady’s short films focus primarily on relationships within the family and how pressures from one’s background, social status, and psychology all impact one another. After watching Over Zonen (About Sons), winner of the Dioraphte Award at the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival, I felt compelled to contact Shady and discover more about where he came from and how he manages to create such a compelling drama in the space of 15 minutes. The film secured Shady a place at the NFTS in the UK to study his craft in safekeeping for two more glorious years.

There was no one anecdote that secured Shady’s interest in filmmaking, rather both his parents have been writers and actors for years, so an impressive feat for accomplishing artistry must come as second nature. More specifically, Shady always loved storytelling and film fell into this love quite naturally. But, at eighteen, he admits not entirely understanding much about the process other than that a director essentially tells the story. However, the film school in Amsterdam (a 4 year BA) divides writers and directors – a long time to commit to one discipline! Despite enrolling in writing, Shady’s desire to direct his own scripts surpassed the schools regulations and he was able to convince the school to make Over Zonen. Without this go-getting attitude, film directing (and NFTS) would never have happened – I believe this is the case for anyone getting into the business – you have to have an element of single-mindedness that allows you to do what it is you actually want to do.

In a dream world, Shady does want to find a co-writer, another mind that can gel with his own to explore the many themes that he is curious about. Two minds can be greater than one. If you find someone with qualities you lack, for example, then it is likely to be most prosperous working with another writer. Let us not be misinformed, Shady is adamant about his love for collaborating, it is clear from his thoughts that it would not otherwise be possible to become a director. A director works with many people, something that Shady believes should be an enjoyable experience and come effortlessly, collaboration as a kind of disclosure. Shady targets another interesting thought that you have to be positive in order to be and stay creative. He then goes on to say that communication should go beyond language. It is a matter of getting other people inside your head. Whether right or wrong, this director understands how to work and evidently knows how to achieve what he wants – a bridge more fundamental in the craft than arguably anything else – essentially understanding yourself, “your mind”.

Shady has been fortunate (and wise) enough to focus solely on directing his films without wearing the producers hat too. The producer is not just the person to hold onto all the logistical and budgetary baloney and to force him or herself away from screaming in public, but actually to aid the director in vision, according to Shady’s welcoming experiences. He believes a producer should guide you in the right direction, “to keep you on the right path” throughout rehearsal, production, or whenever. But, the producer needs to understand first what the director is trying to achieve, and then help him to reach that specific goal. Shady is incredibly humble and talks about a habit of getting carried away with actors, or being overcome with excitement in the moment, and, therefore, finding someone who can remind him of a scene’s essence, or the core of the film, broadly a sustainability, is the most valuable asset that a producer can have.

When talking with Shady about actors, he underscored some central characteristics that are essential to a director. He explained his method, but then concluded with the philosophical truism that “everything will always be different.” And, therefore, the director “must have a very progressive state of mind.” It sounds quite simple really – just don’t be a conservative! But, we all know it is never that easy to give up that little piece, or a core idealism, that you wrote on that one long stormy night at 3 in the morning. Another interesting point is raised when thinking about the language used to engage with actors. It should never be from an audience’s point of view, but rather always that of the character. For example, “This guy is an asshole,” shouts a young lad at the screen – a very judgmental comment, but the director should not shout at the actor, “play an asshole!” There is no one way an actor can know how to play an asshole. The character just needs to know the why of what he is doing and the audience can judge in any which way they feel is appropriate. A director would be at a complete loss if he or she started making direct judgments about a character. Give Shady a message if you need this bit explained better!

After a chat about our favourite filmmakers, Shady talks crucially about coming at autership and cinephilia, as it were, from a place of theme. Watching a director for whom you recognise a certain theme within. “To me, that means that they have something to talk about.” Theme is not like style; style resides on the surface, whereas theme runs deeper, and ever deeper. It is enthusing to hear Shady talk about theme with such profundity. “The story is the vehicle, the ride… the theme is the core… not present, but existing in there somewhere.” Shady also believes that it is theme that essentially allows a film to be “timeless and universal”, look no further than Yasujirō Ozu for a few examples. It seems there are no bounds to the philosophy of film and its makers!

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The reality is that the director is on a suicide mission. They have to clench the confidence to carry a bag of elephants up a mountain and not be told otherwise. No matter what it is that they are carrying, it has to SAY SOMETHING. “What is it that you want to tell me?” Shady realises that a film had better be good and say something if you are asking people to pay a tenner and relentlessly sit in front of a big screen for two hours. This is the responsibility of the director. A director needs to be truthful if they are taking on this task. If not, then “why the hell are you saying it?” There needs to be a REASON, “you need to know what you are saying, and you need to know how to say it.” There really is now nothing more to say! That is directing folks!

Here is an overview of talking points and insights from our chat:

  • Preparation is key for the director – Know what you are saying and how to say it!
  • The task of the director is to get other people inside your mind. This is the art of collaboration. Enjoy collaboration – You have to be positive in order to be creative!
  • Becoming a director is a gradual process of discovery. Shady discovered directing by screenwriting and views this story component as essential to directing. In other words, learn to write too!
  • The importance of theme – the story is the vehicle for the theme that runs far deeper than any style. Theme is often what resonates most with an audience’s understanding. Remember: understanding and enjoyment are two separate things, for example, one might connect with Tokyo Story thematically, and yet be more entertained by Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • For young Tarantino’s – the story will determine your style, not the other way around!
  • The director’s responsibility – the material needs to be personal in order to be truthful. Although, personal does not need to mean autobiographical!
  • Actors are collaborators too. Shady uses the analogy of giving road directions when speaking to actors – be clear and know where you are taking them. Also ensure that the actor understands what you as the director want to achieve.
  • The producer is not an enemy, they are there to guide you in the right direction and keep a tab on that core driving the film.
  • Last advice: Stick to it and make sure you are prepared; rarely does one get a second chance in film directing!

Be sure to watch Over Zonen online, for free, right here:

 

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CONVERSATIONS, FILMMAKING

Film Producer Rob Speranza on the industry and South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network

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Rob Speranza is a film producer from Sheffield. He is one of the most proactive people I have ever come across and he is always looking to give something back by helping new people in this tough industry. Hence, Rob was happy to give me his time and chat about the terrain.

I first came across Rob’s work after a memorable sighting of his feature film Entity on board a long coach trip from Leeds to Amsterdam. It was 2 in the morning, the entire troop on board appeared to be sleeping, and I was sat up with a glowing laptop, in suspense, as on my screen, a rather foolhardy English TV crew crept ever deeper into an unwelcoming Siberian forest.

After enjoying the film and getting in touch with Rob, I realised that most of the team involved were local to Sheffield and that Rob also runs a highly educational and inspirational networking group for filmmakers, the South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network (SYFN). From masterclasses across the board to late evenings watching fresh shorts from across the county, SYFN have a really good thing going. I caught up with Rob, albeit at a frequently busy hour, and picked up a few relevant topics to talk about, shared in convulsions below.

As per usual, we started at the very beginning. Rob began in academia studying English literature to a PhD level at the University of Sheffield. Over a period of time, he befriended a filmmaker who opened up the craft to him. Step by step, “you meet people and you begin making films.” This is, of course, a very condensed version of what actually happened, but it is often as simple as meeting the like-minded people and fuelling the passions of one another. Rob talks enthusiastically about ideas coming from these meetings. It is essential to share your appetite and, in doing so, a network is bound to emerge. This is how SYFN emerged and how ideas like 2 Weeks To Make It (a music video competition) and other such motivations came about.

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Rob admits that he’d never really thought about producing until his friends urged him on and helped to unveil his talents for the craft. Rob was able to strike a relationship with Screen Yorkshire who soon began to perk him up with a number of wholesome commissions (of up to £21,000!) for short films and large event projects. As the steps increase, so do formalities, and in 2004 Rob ended up securing a nice set of offices in the Site Gallery, beside the Showroom in Sheffield city centre. He has been there ever since and the network, or what we could call Rob’s producing hub, is still growing and more emerging talent and filmmaking incentives continue to pop up around Sheffield and the expanse of Yorkshire and Humberside.

After talking about Rob’s own filmmaking, he highlighted that one needs a diverse skillset and the he frequently also works as a line producer. Yet, in independent film, it is often that the two can cross over and the producer will wind up lining up all the lines on a budget. The ranks can further blur if the production cannot afford a production manager, and then it is often the case that a line producer will produce the schedule too. Rob has experienced all of these commotions. Though, at the end of the day, “The cost is your jurisdiction. You are the boss of the cost”. Rob is a keen line producer, and I believe he has a sane reason for this: line producers may work across late prep-time and the shoot, likely to be around three months, but the producer could be tied up for three years or more. I think the producer must essentially be nuts, in the best way possible. Sorry Rob!

I tried to pin down the different factors that entice Rob into producing a project, to giving up three years of his life (“You’d better love it if you are going to tie it to your life…”), to quickly listing a whole slew of things that come knocking on realities door, it is clear that you need the whole package (director, cast, money, saleability and audience). It is all about putting together this PACKAGE. A film needs legwork and it needs to be organised, it needs the goals to keep it in the long haul. “Ask those questions.” In other words, we could also say, don’t be afraid and don’t be downhearted. It is “healthy” to produce films in the UK. Let’s not forget that %20 of your budget can be financed right now through the tax credit!

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I attempted to ask Rob if he could decipher an average correlation between prep, shoot and post times. Something Rob is adamant can only be tailored to each individual project. A couple of examples: during development, Arthur & Merlin went through four different writers and pre-production took approx. 5 months, whereas the shoot was only a month, and post was a fast-turnaround of six months. Most of the time was therefore spent in prep. Entity, on the other hand, no development hell, an even quicker shoot, but a lengthy post-production process, including three months spent on the sound design alone! Filmmaking is shape shifting. But, I don’t know how much I want to believe in this unknown destiny, can it really be impossible to meet strict timelines for a film production? To produce a method that can be sustained time and time again regardless of production and genre? I must be developing further ignorance, I need to produce a feature film myself before I can comment any further…

The importance of festivals spurred on a very conducive discussion. “I think they are the life-blood of where a film goes, how it is going to get seen, and how the market sees it.” Without these platforms for exhibition, audiences wouldn’t be able to indulge in seeing five great films every day for two weeks. A great way to fuel excitement around cinema, but also a great way to avoid “wading through all the crap.” Rob also has first-hand experience in film festivals – he is currently programming for Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASSF) – but he is not naïve to the subjectivity of different film festivals. He acknowledges having to make some very tough decisions – tough skin is required for this filmmaking business!

The loaded, but most necessary column of ADVICE. Just a quick one, Rob says this: “have a car… get hired on other people’s films… experience the set… get work experience in a production office… and learn from people better than yourself.” Finito.

And, a few final words with Rob about SYFN: They offer just about everything – advice, theory and practice on all from crew to locations, script development, festivals, screenings, networking events with Shooting People, masterclasses, equipment hire, moving-image resources, pitching projects, co-producing projects et al. “A multi-faceted and powerful entity in the city.”

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CONVERSATIONS, FILMMAKING

DAN MONTANARINI ON FILM SCHOOL FOR DIRECTORS

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Film school or no film school? Well, according to Paul Thomas Anderson: “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”

This is very true – we live in an age of information overload – but is this a good or bad thing? Can film schools not condense such information and provide a way through all the slosh? Information to one side, the practice is probably the best thing you are likely to get out of film school, so let us look in more depth at the practice film school can offer.

I caught up with Dan Montanarini, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, to pick his brains on the subject. He promises no bias.

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Dan’s first short film The Guest, starring Olivia Williams, premiered at the Krakow International Film Festival and his graduate film Seahorse will be making the rounds later this year.

From 14 Dan knew that he wanted to direct films, but what was the next step to be? There are two things to take into consideration when approaching such a mammoth task as film directing: how to crack the industry open and secondly, perhaps most importantly, how to ground yourself in the craft and the magnificent history that precedes you. Film is an “art form” – study the history and theory of storytelling and aesthetics. Dan expresses a hungry appetite for the world that film occupies, which means watching a lot of films and exploring film culture. You can’t get away without watching lots of films folks. This should be a task to relish in. Of course, a director should enjoy the physical elements of life on a film set, but equally essential as to finding your feet as a film director is being able to talk of your place in the surrounding culture.

Like anything in life that requires making something happen, it won’t transpire at the flick of a switch. Dan graduated in English literature and film from Warwick University and went on to find a full-time job. While earning his living, Dan produced and directed his aforementioned film The Guest on the side. And here is where film school comes in, as a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once (and putting food on the table). However, Dan had never planned on the film school route because he had the sense that if one needs £10,000 to spend on film school then why not make a film yourself? Similar thinking to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Despite all this, Dan explains that film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft than the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds to work with!

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Getting into NFTS is almost entirely based on your short film. It needs to be good. If it is good enough then you get an interview. Dan says that the interview was actually a very pleasant experience; NFTS looks for honesty in their applicants and play to a focused, yet relaxed environment. Once at the school, you are free to explore your craft with great freedom. While the contact hours are very decent, Dan is sure to note that the tutors do not impose regulations. They do, however, provide detailed feedback and hold an intense reviewing process. From rushes to sound lock, every step of the phase is thought-out and given attention to detail. It looks like film school must do one thing very well: harden a director to feedback! When was the last time you received a fleshed out piece of feedback on your own film? Go to film school and you will never have to force someone to watch your film again!

But, how does one keep their own direction with all these opinions? Well, as Dan clarifies, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers, be honest and you will learn quickly. By staying flexible you will eventually be led towards your goal – “Know that it is going to come, it is going to happen.” A director does not need to always provide the answers, they just need to be confident in what they do and don’t know. This sounds well, but what happens when a director says, “I don’t know?” Quite simply, remain open to an idea and take it on board sensibly. Directors are not super-humans, but super-talent does often surround them. In other words, feed off the talent around you.

What’s the best method for working with actors? Give them the script, understand their interpretation, let them rehearse it and then work with them towards your vision. There is no right way to do this, the environment, the story, and personality of the actor will inform this. This is Dan’s view and he goes on to talk about other directors, including a screening he attended of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen who gave some miraculous advice: “I am a director and not an illustrator”. I.e. you cannot be too rigid on a film set; rather you should work with what you have, in the moment, so to speak. A film director needs to direct on the day, not everything can be done before (“unless you are Hitchcock”). Every director has his or her own way of working. Each director is unique in their approach. Film is the medium of an artist.

 

Here’s an interesting method of directing that Dan picks upon, but, let’s be clear, does not salute to himself: letting the actor working it out for themselves until they inevitably reach a point were they become desperate for direction. It is rumoured that Lars Von Trier plays these psychological games on set. And have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? An ethical question is raised. But film directing is arguably an form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. It is up to each director to eventually find their own way.

Dan continues to talk about his love of movies and directors, moving on to the one and only Martin Scorsese – an obvious choice, but a choice that makes sense for a first-love. Hearing Scorsese talk about the movies is like spreading jam on toast or taking a close shave with a sharpened razor. It gives cinephiles an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend an hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema. And don’ forget about John Sturges too.

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Perhaps the next step to reignite your imagination with dreams, memories, and alternate realities would be to stop in with Fellini. Dan talks about his first experience as akin to being “stabbed.” Not quite spreadable, but an experience far closer to reality, as Dan explains the mixture of memories and textures of reality on display are far more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curiosity will serve delightfully.

Can you think of ten minutes that changed your life? This question was asked to Dan during his time at NFTS and is a great way to connect with your beliefs and potentially re-write your past. Film directors must find something personal in the material that they work with. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they must understand the nuts and bolts of their own lives and the various transformations occurring within. You might be thinking why ten minutes and not, more likely, a split-second (a tragedy) or a few months (a romance), but ten minutes of change and we have a movie scene. Give this technique some thought!

What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt and geared to rev any film production to as an accomplished virtuoso, you must just keep going. You may find yourself in the position of Lars Von Trier’s actors: you have no idea what is going on, but you eventually find yourself acclimatising and succeeding. A director can only keep developing their ideas, stories and writing. A director must be ready to present their greatness. Think beyond your present moment, be aware of the past, present and future. Where are you from? Write about this. Where do you want to be? Write about that journey. Who was your first love? Write about that. These are all ideas that Dan wants to inspire and he reminds me that we are all living and, therefore, we all have telling stories to tell. All of us.

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To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS salutations:

  • Film school may be a fantasy factory, but it also requires serious hard work:
  • Rigorous review processes include showcasing each step of a films maternity to the entire school of students and professors for merciless feedback:
  • Confidence building. Tougher skin. Objectively shrewd.
  • You can find your own voice: teachers will adapt to each individual while keeping the student open to new experiences and ideas.
  • On set: “you have all these talented people around you, why would you not want them to contribute?” Enough said.
  • Actors – discover first what you are working with. Points highlighted from Steve McQueen and Lars Von Trier.
  • Scorsese will make you fall in love with cinema. His conviction is infectious.
  • Be confident even if you don’t know the answer – it is okay not to know everything! Enjoy directing!

Watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.

 

Visit Dan’s website here.

You can also join him on Twitter.

 

 

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CONVERSATIONS

Elstree Film Design and Rob Finlay

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After hours, days and weeks of emailing production companies with a keen interest for work experience, it is often that you don’t end up hearing back. You might send them a second email, if you could still remember the details. Elstree Film Design  (EFD) have no such hospitality, they replied within minutes and, after the initial shock, things progressed: a phone call. Here is something that was made very clear to me at EFD, don’t waste your time with fancy emails because calling is ten times more effective. If I’d called the company first, an instant interest would have ben expressed on my part and no doubt a clear resolution to the matter by the end of the call, no treading on mailbox eggshells. However, it is never easy to confront a cold and icy line out of blue water, yet such is the task of life, so lets make it easier for ourselves by picking up the phone.

I met up with Rob Finlay, the company director and a great musician as well as a filmmaker, who inspired me to talk passionately about film. I quickly developed a keen understanding of the work Rob does at EFD and his productive, forward-thinking and tactile approach. For a company who started on the corporate scene only two years ago they are making clear waves in the sector and have exciting prospects for the near feature. With a prolific output, a prime and crisp location, and a small dedicated team with big minds, I hope to visit EFD again very soon. All I can say, is the work experience was thoroughly enjoyable, flexible in the productive sense of the word, and.. get your placements in!  There are only a few companies in this industry who have such warm open doors; they care for the future, remember their pasts and are highly intelligible workers of the present.

To finish this blog post, I have an exciting recording of a Skype interview I did with Rob. I also have an innovative music video embedded, a fantastic project that I was fortunate enough to help develop alongside EFD. Find the interviews on my YouTube channel here, or the full interview embedded below:

Music video: Rob Finlay – Call Back the Day

Visit Rob’s personal website here for more cool videos.

Or, and finally, Visit EFD for a leading service in corporate video!

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CONVERSATIONS

The Limelight Index: Maria Reinup – Writer/Director

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Maria is a bountiful and passionate young female filmmaker from Estonia. I had the pleasure of seeing her powerful short film Mai last year at Leeds Film Festival. The film is an incredibly impressive debut and completely blew me away. Fortunately, I have been able to catch up with Maria and ask her a few questions about her passions for film and the future of the industry.

She is currently wrapping her second short film, stills from which are shown below. (Stills by Andre Visnapuu).

When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I am not the kind, who can recall wanting to make films since their childhood. I had TV at home until I was 6, then it broke down, my hippie-father sang “hallelujah!” threw it out and I never had one again. It took me a while before I got used to the audiovisual medium. Over the course of growing up – there was three influential films and the course itself that led me into the point I realized – filmmaking is for me. The Matrix was the first film I saw on big screen, then some years later 2046, which absolutely blew me and then in a few more years I got to see Bicycle Thieves. In some odd way, seeing these three films – the possibility to bend reality (not to say the future), the vision to make paintings alive and the fact how movies can touch you – was my early film school. Meanwhile, I did every job there was – from selling diapers via phone to being a chef in Barcelona. And it was when I was living in Spain after graduating high school, that I started noticing my diary I kept at the time was filling up with ideas for clips, videos or films. Then, on the set of my first music video, I felt it, I felt the magic.

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How did the idea for your short film Mai come about?

The story of Mai is a story that happened to me. I took the last bus from the suburbs of the city and there was just a friend with me on it that left after one stop. Two drug addicts entered, one of them in a really bad condition. And it was just the drug addicts and I. The bus driver did not care, nor did the people who slowly started to fill up the bus, as we were driving towards the center. I remember being there, when I had already called the ambulance, waiting for the right stop and thinking, “Really, is ignorance a bliss?” The fact how little we care… I don’t have words for this.

How did you attain distribution for your film?

In Estonia there is a quite unique deal for the short films – the professional shorts are compiled into one screening under a suitable name and then they hit the cinemas, marketing done accordingly. So for example, Mai was in the cinema together with 5 other shorts from the past 2 years. As a big production company, Allfilm, produced my short, I had not much to do with the distribution, the producer and the company took care of that. Also, they do most of the festival circulation.

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What are your plans for the future as a filmmaker?

I am currently in post-production with my second short, called Mann Tanzt. This is a very different film from the themes I am usually interested in. It’s about a man who finds a glowing cube in the middle of nowhere, and when he enters it, he realizes it’s a phone booth. Also, I am writing the script for my third short, which we will hopefully shoot this autumn. It is a story about two young women meeting through couch surfing at the verge of different difficult events in their lives and those getting mixed up. Slowly, but firmly, I am developing my first feature with a wonderful co-director Anna Hints, which is a very personal film under the working title I am, if everybody likes me and a script for another feature – a revenge picture. So, that’s easy. I have no other plans than to make the films I want to do. What bliss it would be if I could make films until I die and make a living in doing so.

Do you have high prospects for the Estonian film industry?

Estonia gained its independency after the Soviet Union collapsed in the beginning of the 1990’s. Along the old system falling into pieces, we lost the handicraft and big studios that we were used to being connected with (film stock tickling the 35mm cameras, films were made year around, big productions).  Not only did we have to build up our economy again, we also had to redefine our cinema – its funding systems and in a way, our cinematic language. Its about 15 years from the day our Film Foundation was established and gave out its first production grant. The system is developing and getting better, a change is thus happening, along with the fact that the generation of the Soviet titans (filmmakers who worked with Tarkovsky, or on the productions during Soviet times) is about to fade and the gap will be filled with the new generation. So the new era is almost here, but a reality check is always helpful – Estonia is a country of 1.4 million people (audience numbers equals money) and with no proper distribution system, meaning digitalized cinemas (which until today is just a few screens), distribution is not really working hand in hand with the productions.

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Why is it you love films and making them?

Besides being a filmmaker, I am also a festival programmer – my job is to watch movies. With both of these positions I find myself falling in love with movies over and over again. I love everything about it – from the making of films, upon seeing one on the big screen, but why? To me there are three simple reasons for that: as a young filmmaker I sincerely and really believe that you are able to deliver a message that matters and thus might be able to change something. I see the art of escapism and the need of it. Last but not least, to either make people think or entertained, or both, is simply wonderful and above all other mediums to me.

If I ever had a super power, I’d like to time travel. Damn, dreaming of that makes me itch. In a way watching films is like scratching that itch – suddenly I can not only time travel, but I can be anything! A taxi driver or a small happy pig, see places all over the world, get introduced to different cultures, to the fears and dreams of the humankind. How is that something you don’t love?

Finally, any advice on the industry?

I will say one thing: success means hard work. And a personal touch to this – it starts to make sense when you realize that you have to really love your work first.

Below is a short teaser for Mai (unfortunately it isn’t subtitled but you will sense the urgency!)

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CONVERSATIONS

The Limelight Index: Ewan Stewart – Writer/Director

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I was recently lucky enough to see Ewan Stewart’s brilliant new short film Getting On (above) at Leeds Film Festival, it has since gone on to screen at a number of festivals and win the British Council Award for Best UK Short at London Shorts. I got in touch with the Scottish filmmaker to discuss his unique short and how he got started out in the industry.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

My parents are both writers, so I grew up around a lot stories and that basic fascination that I think we all have for film and cinema kind of took over. I was also very interested in the portrayal of Scottish culture in cinema. When I was growing up, there weren’t many films coming out of Scotland at first, but then films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and the work of Ken Loach, really gave me hope that it would be possible to become a filmmaker where I was from.

Are there any particular filmmakers who inspire you?

I’m inspired by a wide range of filmmakers, but I grew up watching a lot of independent American cinema from the 70s and 80s. As well as the films of the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, Malick, Lynch and Friedkin. I was also interested in European cinema, particularly French New Wave.

Am I right in thinking that you came into the film industry from TV?

Yes, I used to direct commercials before I started working in drama. Before this, I worked in various roles in TV from assistant director to editor.

Do you think that TV is a good route into the film industry?

It can be. The thing about filmmaking is that there are so many different ways that you can get into it. TV helped me to understand who does what and how everything works. I also gained a lot of contacts from the TV industry, so when I started making my own films I got help and support from people I’d worked with.

How did the idea come about for your latest award-winning short film ‘Getting On’?

It was actually based on a short story that my dad wrote. It was essentially a one-page character monologue and was based on a neighbour from his childhood. I felt that the story and voice of the character were very unique and that’s what attracted me to it.

Do you view the story as controversial in any way?

No, I don’t think it would divide audiences in any way. It’s not really about an issue as such; it’s more of a character piece about loneliness and isolation. My aim for the film was to make something that was both funny and poignant with a strong visual element to it.

What made you decide to shoot in monochrome?  

I felt it definitely fitted the tone and the mundanity of the character’s everyday life and I also love black and white from an aesthetic point of view. Practically, as we shot quite quickly on a DSLR, I wanted to make sure the cinematography was consistent in the final film.

You have a lot of tight-angled and awkward shots that I imagine the use of a DSLR made more achievable. Are you pro DSLR in this sense? 

The camera we used was definitely right for this particular film and I’m all for the DSLR cameras in general as they make filmmaking much more accessible. Some people say that the DSLR look is over used, but they do have a good quality to them, depending on how you use them. I wanted the very shallow depth of field look and the DSLR was great for this.

For those who haven’t seen your film, what other festivals is it screening at?

It will be showing at the Glasgow Shorts Film Festival this month and hopefully a few more in the coming months.

What is your take with online distribution?

I’m all for putting short films online, but I’d always do this after the film has finished its festival run. Obviously you can reach a larger audience online, which is a definite advantage.

Will you put ‘Getting On’ online?

I’m currently in the process of attaching the film to a distributor, so it’s unlikely that it will appear online any time soon I’m afraid.

Do you have any other projects in the works, a feature maybe?

I’m just finishing off another short at the moment for release later this year. After this, I have a couple of feature scripts I’m working on.

Will you be taking these projects online for funding?

I probably won’t be going down this route just yet as I’m hoping to get funding from more traditional methods through production companies. But getting funding is always tough, so it’s not something I would rule out.

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?

You really just have to keep making films and keep learning from your mistakes. It all helps. Before I started directing commercials and drama, I made a lot of corporate videos, which I’d shoot myself. Corporates are often dull in terms of subject matter, but everything you do helps to train your eye and give you a greater technical understanding of cameras and editing. They also can give you a chance to be creative whilst earning money at the same time.

Finally, what makes a great short film for you?

I always like to see fresh ideas or a new way of looking at a subject, whether stylistically or through a unique voice. However, I’d say that story is always the most important thing, whether in a short or feature.

Personally, I like short films with humour – there is often a tendency for filmmakers starting out to go for a rather bleak subject matter. With humour, you can instantly get a sense of whether an audience likes your work or not, purely through their reaction and this is definitely an attraction for me.

Watch the trailer for Getting On via the link below.

LSFF Trailer

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CONVERSATIONS

The Limelight Index: Vincent Grashaw – Writer/Director

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Vincent Grashaw is a filmmaker from LA who recently completed directing his successful debut feature film Coldwater. Here, we talk about how he got there, the film and his plans for the future.

When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I started out in junior high, 1994. This was more or less the beginning of the impressionable years, where you’d absorb all of an artist’s work – for me this was movies. From 14 to 18, a lot of the movies I watched really had an effect on me even if they weren’t necessarily the best movies. I was young and used to ‘hack’ projects that’d I’d seen, using similar elements, pulling stuff from it for my own scripts. Sometimes you even do it subconsciously. So at some point you stop hacking films you love and start to come up with your own film aesthetics, style, and vision. So I suppose it was never a bad thing because I knew the creative wheels were turning and that film was something I really wanted to do. It was my schooling process since I never went to college. The movies I watched at that time molded the kinds I want to make and who I am as a filmmaker.

What kind of films do you like to watch?

I have so many different movies I like to watch, the ones I can watch over and over are completely different to my favourite movies. For example, I could watch What About Bob, The Witches, Stand By Me or The Big Lebowski over and over. These movies I connected within and they are comforting and humoring, however these are very different to what films I actually make.

Am I right in thinking your movies lend themselves to violence?

Yeah, I tend to gravitate towards the darker subjects in movies. I have a couple of movies to make that aren’t violent in the pipeline that I intend to make.  I’m not harnessing myself to just one genre.

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What’s your opinion on directors who stick to one genre?

It depends on the director.  If a filmmaker only makes horror films then that’s their thing, I don’t have a problem with that at all. Filmmaking is such a personal thing that it has to be relevant to the filmmaker… it’s a huge release as an artist.

You acted in and produced in one of last years acclaimed indie movies ‘Bellflower’, how did you get involved with this?

Evan Glodlell, the director, is a good friend of mine and we used to make short films together. The film was a very long process; Evan had been working on the script for a while. We shot the movie in 2008 on a tiny budget. Initially, we weren’t sure how to proceed, but we had a little bit of money and just went for it.  We became obsessed with getting things done, at ALL costs. We did many things, most illegal to make that happen.  The only reason I was acting in it was because he couldn’t find anyone to play the role, and we’d acted in each other’s shorts, so I just did it.

Are your short films online anywhere?

Its funny, once Bellflower got into Sundance, we pretty much took all our stuff off the net. We used to make ridiculous stuff, it was outrageous and weird, and we didn’t want it out there! One day, some of it might be re-released, maybe through a compilation Dvd.

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When did ‘Coldwater’ become a reality?

I had the project on my plate throughout my entire 20’s. I had a loose connection to a kid who was abducted one night, so this was where the idea originally came from. However, it wasn’t until several times trying to get the film made that it came through.  Trying to make the film was basically my film school; I’d meet lots of different types of producers, some who were absolute weasels, playing wannabes, and some who were just in over their head. It’s definitely better it wasn’t made back then because over 13 years I learned a lot more about the reality behind the movie as well, which lends to its credibility. All these elements combined drove the film into what it is today.

What is your take on crowdfunding for indie filmmakers?

I just produced a movie in September with the guys who I made Bellflower with. It’s a gritty, turf-war action movie; we crowdfunded this film using Indiegogo and raised about $180,000. We then partnered with a couple of production companies who funded the rest. So, crowdfunding was great for this movie because we obtained a following with Bellflower, so it was a great way to get things going.

Are there any other projects in the works for you?

I recently acquired a script for the next feature I will be directing, which is a psychological horror movie.  I’m very excited about this. We are currently aiming to shoot around spring/summer 2014.

Any release dates planned yet?

In some cases, in the indie world you don’t really know where your going to be until you do it. It’s not like the studio system where you can set dates years in advance. We’ll take the film to a festival and it will hopefully sell there, unless we presale the movie because of the actors I attach.

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What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking? 

All the drama and bullshit that coincides with filmmaking really has nothing to do with it. There’s a key relationship with everyone involved, it’s like being family. You come together for a period in your life and then it’s all over and you get a new family. Filmmaking is so much fun and, for me, actually a very peaceful experience. It’s a very collaborative art, even though at the end of the day the director has to make the ultimate decision. It is a very fun process, I mean why else would I be doing this? It’s not like we’re all getting fat and foolish from all the money we’re making!

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?  

There’s a lot of advice I could give, but I have a couple of main things. Always stay humble, there will be a lot of things you’re married to in your script, but things will evolve and you’ll have to accept changes. Being open to this process is very important; nothing will be exactly as you pictured it in your head. Basically I am saying that your project evolves into many forms throughout the process and instead of fighting it, embrace it and see what transpires.

Secondly, don’t look at the business as a competitive thing. It can appear so competitive on the surface, which is overwhelming.  Don’t let that affect anything because at the end of the day it’s just you and your film.  People will try and knock you down, tell you that you’re doing something wrong, or unconventional. Before everything took off for me, the month before Bellflower took off, I think we were all in the darkest phase because we were getting all of this negative energy and feedback from people we should’ve never been listening to in the first place. So find a group of people you can trust with your material for honest criticism. Potentially from other artists who are relevant to what you’re trying to say; no one knows your material better than you.

Check out the trailer for Coldwater below:

Visit the movies website.

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CONVERSATIONS

The Limelight Index: Neil Oseman – Director/Cinematographer

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So, I came across this blog with this guy who’s made an entire feature film for only 26 grand and posted it online for us all to see, this guy is Neil Oseman. Neil is a British filmmaker battling through the world of independent moviemaking and sharing some truly insightful knowledge on the craft. Featured below is an interview I did with Neil to find out a bit more about him and his approach to making films.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

When I was a teenager I had a piece of software called Deluxe Paint that could do very crude animations. One day, one of them got put onto a video for some presentation in school. This got me interested, and I managed to borrow my Granddad’s camcorder and started putting live-action with the animation. The live-action gradually took over.

Which filmmakers/movies influence your work?

The two big influences on me when I was starting out were the Back to the Future films that I still absolutely love and Jurassic Park. I grew up in the age of VHS when cinema attendance was down so my parents never really took me to the cinema. So, going to see Jurassic Park at the cinema had a huge impact on me. I sought out The Making of Jurassic Park, which was the first time that I really had any understanding of how a film was made.

Are there any other books on the subject that stand out to you?

I think the Guerilla filmmaker’s handbooks are essential, I’ve definitely learnt a lot from these. However, they can get a little depressing in places because they constantly hammer home the reality of making films! Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez is also highly influential. I just love to collect books on filmmaking, there’s plenty out there.

Ray Bullock Jnr in Soul Searcher

Can you tell us more about your feature film ‘Soul Searcher’?

Yeah. Well, firstly the whole thing is online at YouTube now, which is linked via my blog. There is also a making of featurette you can watch too and I recently put up a twenty-minute video that breaks down the finances, what everything was spent on and the various distribution deals.

The film originally started off as a short film that I made in 2000 when I was twenty. A couple of years later I developed this into a feature length script with a friend of mine. We tried approaching TV and film companies for funding, but we didn’t get anywhere. So in the end we just decided to make it on the absolute minimum. I’d had a good year and put two or three grand in, I managed to convince friends and relatives to help us out too and gradually we obtained enough money.

It was a six-week shoot in the autumn of 2003. It was also a night shoot so it was very cold and lots went wrong, which is all covered in the documentary. But, amazingly everyone who worked on it said that they had a really good time!

You must have had good spirit on set?

Yeah I think so. Morale is definitely important. When you work on a low-budget film you really don’t know if it’s going to be any good or not. So, anything you can do to keep people motivated, for example showing people the dailies or letting them see the monitor during the shoot. I cut a trailer halfway through the six weeks of shooting Soul Searcher that was a huge motivator for the crew.

Filming Soul Searcher

What has led you to specialising in cinematography?

Well I still direct, but I just end up doing more cinematography as it takes a lot less time to work this way than starting up your own project. I’ll be directing a short soon in Nottingham for a writer I work with, so I think after this I’ll decide on what the next step will be for me.

Have you got any big plans for the near future?

Earlier this year, I finished a short called Stop/Eject which is currently doing its film festival circuit. The guy who wrote this is currently working on a feature script that might be a future project. I also have a science fiction piece that was written for me this year, which would be quite a big-budget short. So, lots of different things to be working on!

What’s your approach to crowdfunding?  

I used it for Stop/Eject so I’ll probably use it again for future projects. It is difficult and it’s becoming hugely over saturated; you need to have something about your project to really make it stand out. A subject matter that has a strong interest group for example, documentaries tend to be more successful at the moment.

Oliver Park and Georgina Sherrington in Stop-Eject

What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking?

I just like creating stuff. It’s in my blood; I need to keep making stuff. I like to be able to take an audience into another world. Reality dramas interest me less as I’m very interested in sci-fi and fantasy elements of the imagination.

Any advice to filmmakers starting out?

It’s so easy now to just go out and make films. Everyone has access to a camera. So teach yourself, but also try and work on other people’s films. Then you’ll be forced to work to the standards they demand, which may raise your game when you go back to doing your own projects. Try and get involved as much as possible, even if it means making tea!

Watch Neil’s feature film below!


Visit Neil’s blog

 

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CONVERSATIONS

The Limelight Index: Carlos Puertolas & Rani Naamani – Writer/Directors

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I was recently in touch with Side Films duo Carlos Puertolas & Rani Naamani from San Francisco. They make incredibly punchy and high-octane short films. However, as well as making their own films, the pair are also fantastic animators working on feature films from Shrek The Third to How To Train Your Dragon 2. You may have come across their latest short film Call Back which has been a tremendous hit online across Vimeo and Short of the Week. Here, the two give some concrete advice and insight into the art of filmmaking.

When did you guys first get interested in filmmaking?

We both got interested in filmmaking from a very young age. Unfortunately there were no good cheap SLR’s back then, so we created little films with the family camcorders, from little segments to the use of cutting to create “magic tricks” and illusions. Animation was also a huge influence on us; we are both huge fans of Tex Avery, and the Looney Tunes. It was a like free animation school for us; these shows had great comedic timing and I think watching enough of those as kids got that sensibility embedded in our brains!

Being animators, does this affect how you approach filmmaking? 

Yes! Great question. It totally does. As animators, we really appreciate pantomime and simplicity, partially because it’s aesthetically appealing, but also because it has been proven time and time again that this is the most efficient way to communicate ideas. This mentality applies to everything from composition to ideas to lighting to sound and dialogue. Less is more.

Your short films are very dark and astute, how do you come up with your ideas? 

A lot of these ideas start with an image, and then we go from there. In some cases, the ideas are formed from notions we had for a premise. So really it varies. The ideas can come from anywhere. We quite often have brainstorming sessions, where we sit down and discuss things that might have popped into our heads that week. It’s interesting you mentioning that our ideas are always dark, our theory is that after so many years working in the animation business where everything is colorful and fun we need to express our darker instincts somewhere…  so we use Side Films!

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Your latest short film, ‘Call Back’ is incredibly concentrated, smart and wonderfully shot. How challenging was the process of making this film? 

Very challenging. We really didn’t have a big budget for this short. So we had to plan every detail meticulously because the margin for error was almost non-existent. We did a lot of pre-visualization before hand to figure out every single shot that we wanted to shoot. We planned what lenses we had to rent, what equipment we needed, we had to find a place that will permit us to film there and had to shoot the entire thing in 4 days. All that planning and the day still went by fast, the sun was no longer were we needed it, and we had to improvise and find ways to re-frame and light our subject so that it looked like day time even when it was dark outside. The weather was also a factor, it rained during our shoot, so we had to stop and wait for the clouds to clear, thankfully they did!

‘Call Back’ has done exceedingly well online. Did the film have a successful festival run too?

We haven’t had the chance to submit it to that many festivals just yet. We’re hoping to send it to some in the next few months!

What can we expect from Side Films in the future, any features? 

That is definitely the goal. We have a few feature film ideas, when one of them gets ripe, we can begin pre-production. In the end, we want to make sure that whichever one we go for has a good story, great characters, and if possible a fresh concept.

What do you guys enjoy most about filmmaking?

We both love directing, but if we had to narrow it down, editing & sound are definitely among our favorites. Mainly because that’s when things start to come together and give you instant gratification for all the planning you’ve been doing up to this point.

Finally, do you have any critical advice you’d like to give filmmakers starting out? 

Yes, if you want to learn how to make films, just go out and film something. Experience is the best teacher. No matter how many books on film theory you read and study, nothing comes close to you just trying it first hand. Reading a couple of books is okay, but at some point you need to stop preparing for life and just do it.

Watch Call Back here:

 

Visit their website Side Films

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